Blogging Jesenská: Ashley Ahearn, USA

Ashley Ahearn

Military Zones Mean Boom for Biodiversity

Throughout history people and nations have felt the need to divide “us” from “them”. And so we build walls. We build walls for protection. We build walls out of insecurity and fear – from the Great Wall of China, stretching thousands of miles, to the barbed wire and cement walls separating Israel and Palestine. In Korea, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea is perhaps the most heavily patrolled military buffer zone in the world. And on the island of Cyprus, Greeks and Turks remain separated by what’s called the “Green Line”, a strip of un-inhabited heavily patrolled land running down the center of the island.

Perhaps one of the most famous artificial boundaries of modern history is the Iron Curtain, which Winston Churchill described as “descending across the continent” after World War II. Indeed, a wall of barbed wire and guard towers – peppered with land mines, military patrols and attack dogs – symbolized the division between the communist and democratic super powers that sought to redefine the world order during the Cold War.

Militarized boundary zones are the physical manifestations of dark periods in human history, but they can represent high points for nature. In heavily populated parts of the world, such as Europe and the Korean Peninsula, wildlife is often relegated to, and indeed relies upon, these liminal spaces. They become hot-spots for biodiversity – accidental refuges amidst crowded human-dominated landscapes.

As a teenager in the 70’s, Kai Frobel could see the Iron Curtain from his village in West Germany. However, as an avid young birder, he noticed that birds were capitalizing on the 50 meter militarized buffer zone that had torn his country in half. Early in the morning and at dusk the shy young man would wander along the barbed wire fence in his Wellington boots and green parka, carrying binoculars. The East German Intelligence officers, or Stasi, kept an inch-thick file on Frobel and accused him of organizing green party, anti-communist revolts in East Germany.

But Frobel wasn’t looking to start a revolution. He was looking for Northern Shrikes and Wood Larks, Whinchats and Yellow Hammers. He was noting where the rooks roosted at night and where they foraged for food during the day. The area surrounding Frobel’s town was heavily farmed. Fields upon fields of wheat had long since replaced the trees, low shrubs and natural grasses many birds rely on for habitat. When the Iron Curtain was built, the buffer zone on either side of the border provided the perfect opportunity for a thin sliver of land to revert to a natural state. Frobel knew this place to a bird Mecca, nestled in among acres of monoculture.
“Over the years a real treasure trove of species appeared here”, Frobel says, “Hundreds of endangered species used this ‘final retreat’ within the dead zone of the former border.” Frobel says. His research showed that although the Iron Curtain represented a death zone for people, this was not the case for nature. The Whinchat, one of Frobel’s favorite birds, performed its courtship displays on the border fence itself. In fact, Frobel found that 90 percent of the bird’s nests were in the border zone when he conducted a formal study of the Whinchat in the late 70’s.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, the divisions between communist East Germany and democratic West Germany began to crumble. But Kai Frobel was determined to preserve the accidental wilderness the Iron Curtain had created. He arranged what was supposed to be a small meeting to talk about protecting the green strip and invited both Eastern and Western Germans. On the night of the meeting, to Frobel’s great surprise, more than 200 Germans showed up, many of whom had not crossed the Iron Curtain in 37 years. The European Greenbelt Initiative was born.
Since that meeting, Frobel’s vision to replace the Iron Curtain with a green belt has united non-profits and community organizations from 23 countries bordering the Iron Curtain in a massive transboundary conservation effort. And although industrial and infrastructural development has encroached in both Eastern and Western European countries, making it unrealistic to keep the “Green Curtain” fully intact, the protected areas along its 8,500 kilometer route provide a cross section of all the major ecosystems in Europe. Hundreds of endangered species such as Baltic lynx, otter and black stork have taken refuge within the network of conservation areas and wilderness corridors that now follow the spinal chord of Europe from, as Churchill put it, “Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”.

Species from the microbial to the mammoth rely on habitat for survival. Indeed, when we lose habitat – be it from climate change or human land use patterns, entire ecosystems are forced to adapt and restructure themselves. We can think of ecosystems as intricate webs of relationships between species based on parasitism, symbiosis and predation. When one strand of the web is destroyed, the system fails. When one species in a food chain is eliminated, all the others are at risk, from the very top to the very bottom. In the modern world it’s easy to imagine that human beings are separate from the ecological web, but without diverse ecosystems the foods we harvest, the fish we catch, and the medicines we depend on would no longer be available.

The UN realized that biodiversity loss was a critical problem back in 1992 and has been working to halt the decline in numbers of species on the planet ever since. A major part of that effort involves preserving “biodiversity hot spots” – chunks of habitat where the broadest and most diverse array of species can be found. There are over 10 recognized biodiversity hot spots along the route of the former Iron Curtain, which has lead scientists to more closely evaluate the biodiversity of military border zones, such as the Demilitarized Zone in Korea and the Green Line in Cyprus.
Iris Charalambidou is one of those scientists. She’s an ornithologist at the University of Cyprus and co-leader of a UN-funded project to assess the biodiversity of the Green Line. Chiaralambidou was just a girl when Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974. For years there had been strife between the Muslim and Greek Orthodox communities on the island. The Turkish troops took over the northern half of the island, renaming it the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The southern half remains Greek Cypriot. UN troops patrol what’s called the “Green Line,” a strip of land ranging from just a few meters to seven kilometers in width, which divides the Northern and Southern halves of the island.

Chiaralambidou and her team, which is made up of scientists from both the Turkish and Greek sides of Cyprus, have completed nine forays into the Green Line, documenting the flora and fauna there, and published their findings.

“We can find many of these species outside the buffer zone but in the zone the populations are larger and in a healthier condition because they’re undisturbed”, Charalambidou explains.

The ornithologist was particularly excited to find three large wintering populations of the Eurasian Sickney, an endangered species of curlew as well as two endemic bird species of Cyprus – the Cyprus Wheatear and the Cyprus Warbler – which only breed on this island.

Fishermen in coastal villages bordering the Green Line have spotted Mediterranean Monk Seals, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet due to hunting and habitat loss. The seals have been hunted since the times of the Roman Empire and fishermen to this day view them as pesky competitors for fish. “Due to the shy nature of the Monk Seal these areas are ideal for them to rest and maybe even breed”, says Wayne Fuller, a research scientist at the European University of Lefke in North Cyprus. Fuller added that it’s unclear how many seals there are, but that this undisturbed coastline habitat could be critical to their continued existence.

Perhaps the most violent international boundary in the world lies between North and South Korea. The Demilitarized Zone encloses 600 square miles of mountain, wetland, grassland and coastal ecosystems – an undisturbed swathe of Korean wilderness. In North Korea deforestation and erosion are major problems, and in South Korea development and rising population have contributed to a massive loss of biodiversity.

No one is allowed to enter the DMZ but scientists have been allowed to enter the Civilian Control Zone, a buffer zone 5 to 20 kilometers wide that lines the DMZ. In the CCZ, which scientists believe to be ecologically representative of the overall DMZ region, over 1,2000 plant, 50 mammal, 80 fish, and hundreds of bird species have been documented, many of which are on the Red List of endangered species.

For Dr. KC Kim, director of the Center for Biodiversity Research at Pennsylvania State University, the DMZ represents a stronghold for, as he puts it, “…the native species that are damaged and gone in much of the rest of South Korea”. For most of his adult life, Kim has worked to create an international conservation area in the DMZ. With the complex political situation in North Korea, his work has gone largely unrewarded, but at age 74 the dedicated scientist hasn’t given up hope. “I’ll die sooner or later, I’d like to work for this as long as my health continues”, Kim says, “Whether I can do it before my call comes, I don’t know that.”

There is indeed an international movement afoot to promote conservation in war-torn areas. Anna Grichting, a Harvard-trained urbanist and architect, studies borderland conservation efforts like the DMZ, the Green Line in Cyprus, and the European Greenbelt Initiative. Borderlands are indeed in Grichting’s blood. She grew up in a village near the border between the French and German halves of Switzerland. She lived in Northern Ireland as a girl, and she was in Berlin visiting her grandmother when the Berlin Wall came down. “I’m very interested in these areas, boundaries and walls, as areas where something new is created”, Grichting says, “The boundary is the place of separation but it’s also the place of encounter, the place of interface.”

For Grichting, re-envisioning borderlands is part of the peace process. She is developing a plan for Cyprus (which may be reunited as early as this December) that will create a sort of “green necklace” where the green line will be used as the strand connecting conservation land with shared spaces such as museums, community centers, libraries and infrastructure for ecotourism and sustainable farming. Grichting says the key is to help people understand the ecological value of these accidental wildernesses as critical havens of biodiversity, while helping them to decide how best to move forward in repurposing these no-man’s-lands.

Indeed, Grichting sees combining sustainable development with conservation in militarized borderlands as a means of healing the wounds of failed policy, and perhaps one day eliminating the need for walls altogether. “I think that we must find a balance between physical political boundaries and ecological natural boundaries of cooperation”. The international boundaries of the future may not be of coiling wire but of curling vine.


Ashley Ahearn is a Seattle based reporter at KUOW radio and at Public Radio International. In 2009, she was a Milena Jesenská Fellow at the IWM in Vienna.

The Milena Jesenská Blog with all posts can be found here.

IWM, 2011. Copyright © 2011 by the author & the IWM. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from the IWM.